Caught in a Mosh

December 10, 2014

Anthrax’s seminal hit rings true, these days, as I – and metal musicians, it would seem – have noticed that what was once a pit of frivolity and “good, friendly, violent fun,” as Exodus phrased it, has become a land of bullies and thugs.  The most recent artist to speak about it is Slipknot’s Chris Fehn, who puts it, rightly, when he says,

“I think, especially in America, moshing has turned into a form of bullying. The big guy stands in the middle and just trucks any small kid that comes near him. They don’t mosh properly anymore. It sucks because that’s not what it’s about. Those guys need to be kicked out."

He’s right, you know.  It’s changed.  The pit, that is, has become some kind of supercharged gladiator ring rather than a place to bounce off of people and have a good time.  It’s an interesting dynamic, these days.  "In my day" (to sound 80 years old), which is to say back in the late 80s early 90s, pits were a bunch of folks skipping around in circles — rapidly.  You may catch an elbow in the mush, occasionally, but you kept skipping and laughing it off because you knew there was no "intent to injure" or anything other than just a good "mosh." 

At the most recent concerts I’ve attended, it’s some jackball who weighs 300 pounds lining up on one side of the pit and just going bowling across the middle and plowing into a bunch of folks on the other side who weren’t expecting it.   Add in a bunch of other Neanderthal-acting folks who are just throwing elbows, over-head fist swings and feet with no intent, it would seem, to do anything BUT injure, and that’s the state of things, it seems.  It sounds stupid as hell to say, but there’s no decorum, anymore, in a pit. 

A notable exception, and a “pit” I could get on board with, occurred at the Týr show where it was a large group of people, arms locked at the shoulders, in a circle, facing inward, simply head-banging in rhythm.  Very interesting to watch and allowed the people right up at the front to enjoy the show without fear of being obliterated from behind by some ill-mannered moron.  That show was epic.  We also got to witness a “wall off death” executed perfectly, but in a way where, if you didn’t want to be part of it, you weren’t included in the mayhem irrespective of your opinion.

I’ve NEVER had to throw a good solid check in a pit, before, but I got to a point where I was just trying to keep the people who were on the outside from getting run over by the folks on the inside who don’t respect the boundary of the pit.   It used to be you would see someone get accidentally (or even intentionally) knocked down, you’d help them up and keep the pit moving.  Now, it just looks like the goal is to knock everyone down and be the last one standing. 

I don’t know when this change occurred, but it is going to kill the concert experience for the fan who would LOVE to get close and SEE the musicians up close, but doesn’t want to get wrecked by someone who, in my opinion, doesn’t respect the musician or the music, let alone the other fans.  I spent half of the Conquering Dystopia show squaring off behind some kid who looked to be maybe 13, was obviously attending his first show, and was not only star-struck by being right up there with Jeff and Keith, but also rightly terrified by the morons who were just plowing into him.  It’s funny, though, because I gave Keith a “BAD KEITH!!” when he did the finger circle indicating, “mosh it up!” but not because I don’t want these bands to have a pit, but because I knew the people in this particular pit were not equipped, mentally, to do a pit “right.”  I tried to make it so this kid could watch the show looking forward, at the musicians, and not behind him, bracing for impact.  No one wants this kid, or anyone else, to think poorly of the band, the venue, or the whole magical LIVE experience because some folks can’t conduct themselves in and orderly, respectfully violent manner.  If the pit had contained itself to its circle and had limited itself to ping-ponging, skipping, hopping, rhythmic “slam-dancing,” it wouldn’t be an issue.  As it stands, when a show comes to town with band I enjoy, I have to ask myself if it’s worth the effort.  Maybe it’s just getting old and having back issues, and knee issues and thinking, "Strange…I’m actually here to see the band I paid money to see…"

So, while not a whole lot of hoo-hah has been made about this, Taylor Swift made a move a few Thursdays ago that made a lot of people scratch their heads, a lot of people lash out at her and quite a few simply shrug and not care in a different way than they didn’t care before.  I went through all three stages, but also had another stage – I started to agree with her, in principle.  I don’t really agree with how she’s gone about it, but, let’s look at this, shall we…

Taylor has had Spotify – the cpu hogging music streaming app that supports about every platform out there – remove her entire back catalog from their rotation.  That’s a big deal because it’s a lot like calling every radio station in *the world* and telling them not to play your music, anymore.  Her quote on why, “And I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists, and creators of this music. And I just don’t agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free.”

My first take on this is that she was NOT a child of the early 80s.  My first copy of Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” was a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy that a friend handed me saying, “You HAVE to listen to this band, man!”  So, I got arguably Metallica’s best album for free, right?  Wrong-o!  What I got was a tape that had to be turned up to the full extent of the tape deck in order to get volume that was audible with, literally, no fidelity…and a burning desire for more Metallica!  That week, I purchased what are now kind of collector’s items but were all I could afford at the time, the “Whiplash – Remix EP” and “Creeping Death” picture disc with the original “Garage Days Revisited” on the b-side.  So, yeah, *records.*  At any rate – this “free” MoP tape of horrifying fidelity spawned a purchase rate that, over the past three decades has made Metallica, from just me, close to $500, give or take, in albums sales, concert tickets, and t-shirt sales.

I use this as an example because what Spotify is trying to do is be a sort of half-crazed fan that allows you to try new music based on what you say you like – like the guy with the crappy tape saying “You have to try this!” only through things like “Phil, 9 Suggestions For You” emails that tend to include bands I would never seek out on my own.  So, with that in mind, I find it hard to fathom why anyone wouldn’t want “free publicity,” except that’s the rub, isn’t it?  It’s a pittance these artists are paid every time a song of theirs is played on Spotify.  I had a brief discussion with an artist about this and the sad truth is that an artist gets between $0.001 and $0.005 and said artist must also work through a third-party aggregator which then siphons off profits from this paltry number.  For example, if you have a song that people LOVE and play 1,000 times, today, you will make between $1 and $5.  If you’re working with an aggregator that takes the minimum I’ve seen, you’re looking at 9% or $0.09 taken from what you make for this song off of Spotify, therefore, only leaving you with $0.91 of your own, and that’s if the company takes only the minimum I’ve seen – it could be as much as 30%, which would leave you with $0.70.

So, while this information might be dated, it’s OK for our purposes and that’s because, for what it’s worth, Taylor isn’t having any and I kind of agree.  I don’t like Spotify, really, and have sort of a contrarian relationship with it.  So, when I get a suggested band, my usual first though is, “won’t be listening to them, thanks.”  I know…bad Phil.  Still, if you’re an artist who has paid a LOT of money to record an album and are looking to recoup costs, services like Spotify are not really the way to go, I would think, especially in a world where initial sales are big indicators as to whether your record company will decide to deal with you for a next album.

Some of this is probably also coming on the heels of the U2 hit/miss release of their new album for free to the world via iTunes – whether you wanted it or not.  Personally, I was irritated on two levels by this.  The first is that it’s exceedingly presumptuous.  Music is a personal thing.  Me, I don’t like people screwing with my music collection or putting something in there that I’m not able to remove.  As a side note, I found it sad that Apple had to create a tutorial on how to remove U2 from your iTunes collection…  Secondly, I find it devaluing what U2 did, musically.  I haven’t listened to the album, so I can’t say whether it’s the best album in decades or drek, but what I can say is that it’s like telling the rest of the world one of two things: 1) “We’re so bloody rich, we don’t need the money, so have this album,” or 2) “We’re not sure this is going to sell, so, here, take it and please see us on tour where we actually make money.”

So, my takeaway is this – Taylor Swift was saying to the world, I value my music more than $0.001 to $0.005 a play and I have enough faith in my music that if my fans really want it, they will buy it.  I am OK with that.  I’m also OK with bucking the idea of the half-crazed tape trader that is Spotify.  Honestly, as someone who grew up on metal, it’s never been about the radio airplay, but always about the word of mouth.  Now, Taylor doesn’t have to worry about airplay; you almost can’t take a trip down the FM dial, let alone XM/Sirius spectrum, without tripping over one of her songs, but that exposure is worth more than a penny, here, or a dollar, there.  The hard truth is that it’s about building enough of a fanbase to come out to a concert which is, really, what ends up paying the bills.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that while there’s something to the “any exposure is good exposure” mentality of Spotify, there’s also the idea that your music that you’ve poured your heart and soul into is worth more than what Spotify has valued it.  That’s on Spotify.  That’s on the consumerist mentality.

After pondering on this awhile – and starting off kind of disagreeing with her – I actually have to side with Taylor on this.  The sad part of it is, if an artist who you know makes more than $1 to $5 a day on songs is getting uppity about the artists getting what they deserve via these services, you know that there are hundreds if not thousands of other artists out there who, while needing the pittance they’re getting from Spotify, wish they could do the exact same thing.

Sanctuary, “The Year the Sun Died”

I first got into Sanctuary thanks to Headbanger’s Ball when “Future Tense” was making the rounds and managed to find both “Refuge Denied” and “Into the Mirror Black” at a local record store.  From there, we got Sanctuary’s demise, Nevermore’s rise, Nevermore’s demise and Sanctuary’s rise.  There’s a lot in between, there, and that’s oversimplifying a bit, but for our purposes, it will suffice.  Here’s the thing — there have been two constants in this whole timeline: Warrel Dane and Jim Shephard.  With that in mind, I feel the need to address something before we even get into the new album from Sanctuary, and it’s the elephant in the room.

No.  This does not sound like a Nevermore album.  Well, OK, it sounds a bit like a Nevermore album.  There are two songs in particular that sound like they could have come from the “Obsidian Conspiracy” sessions, just as there are a couple that sound like they could have come from the “Praises to the War Machine” sessions, just like there are a couple that sound like they could have come from the next sessions following “Into the Mirror Black.”  Think of it this way: it’s analogous to the Mercyful Fate/King Diamond duality.  Same singer, marginally different vocal deliveries (mainly falcetto), slightly different topics, different band.
So, that said, I approached this album as someone who was looking forward to hearing what these fellas could come up with after a long time apart with growth and maturity on all sides coming together.  I expected a solid album.  I was not disappointed.

Also, of importance to me — the album recording and release was pushed back a couple of times.  The part of me that was grumpy at the delays is also the part of me that is glad they did. I’m pretty sure that the album only benefitted from the delays because, as a whole, it sounds tight, polished, well thought out and cohesive — something I wished for with “The Obsidian Conspiracy,” which, to me, did not, in a number of ways.  So, with that in mind, let’s address the album.

My first, overall impressions start with the mix. It’s excellent.  The guitars are placed very well.  The drum tone is stellar.  The bass is a velvet thunder.  Warrel’s voice is spot on and sounding the best he’s sounded in years, you might even say reinvigorated.  The mix feels roomy with great tone and balance.  A super-sized hug to everyone involved in the production for not falling into the “loudness war” garbage, rather giving us a well-mixed, tonally balanced, roomy and sonically pleasing album.  What compression is used, is used well and there’s no clipping or brickwalling which, really and eternally, makes me happy.  Thank you, again, Zeuss, and anyone else who insisted on music being listenable.

There isn’t a weak track on the album.  From the onset of “Arise and Purify,” to the final notes of “The Year the Sun Died,” you’re given well-crafted, well-played metal that is all you would want from Sanctuary.  “Arise and Purify” is just immense and the delayed guitar section is hypnotizing.  A perfect opener to the album, it also delivers your first taste of how they were going to address the “Sanctuary Scream” with an older Warrel — and it really worked.  “Let the Serpent Follow Me” continues the momentum and chugs and weaves through a fun wah-soaked riff.  The ‘breakdown riff’ reminds me a lot of Arch Enemy and definitely conjures images of churning pit.

I’ll be honest — the first time I heard “Exitium (Anthem of the Living),” I wasn’t sold.  I don’t know why, it just didn’t jive with me for some reason.  I have gone 180 degrees and love this
song, deeply.  I don’t know if it’s because it sounds like Depeche Mode gone evil, or if the guitars just feel perfect, or if I’m just a sucker for the off-kilter-meets-all-out-thrash feel.
I don’t even mind the talking… something that I usually just kind of ignore.  Again, this went from a song I wasn’t sure about to one of my favorites on the album.

“Question Existence Fading” is a track that could have been written back in ’89 and brought to today’s feel.  The bridge is fantastic and reminds me a little of “Little Boy” (Metal Church) — and that’s most certainly a good thing as Warrel’s voice is harmonized perfect on the descent, this is definitely a solid track and works well as a transition right to “Low,” which has a “Praises” feel to it, sauntering, carefully, with the acoustic guitars interplaying with the electrics.  Definitely some early 90s feel to it, and a very well thought out song — good transitions and movement.

“Frozen” grinds forth a churning riff with a vocal line bludgeoning along dropping a sumptuous chorus that turns right around and zooms into a fun solo run that make this feel like an excellent nostalgia piece for Sanctuary fans wanting a logical follow up “ITMB.”  Look no further.

“One Final Day (Sworn to Believe)” is one of the songs I remembered from the “teaser” thing they did on youTube many moons ago.  It’s an interesting song musically and lyrically and sneaks up with a deceptively catchy chorus — not quite ear worm, but just a couple of words and they stick in there.  A solid song.

“The World is Wired” is a song that feels a little NM-ish, at first, but quickly secures its own identity and churns forward with solid riffing and a smart uses of breathing — the ends of each verse are well done. The song is put together very well and everything sounds excellent.  The mix on this song shines.

The song that surprised me, the most, on this album was, without a doubt, “The Dying Age.”  That said, I love it.  The layering going on is complex without becoming impenetrable and the vocals are spot on.  The movement and feel of the song is excellent and it works, for me.  Again, the off-time guitar under the verse wasn’t something I expected, but can certainly dig it.

The instrumental, “Ad Vitam Aeternam” is pretty cool and leads into the title track, fitting well. Segueing into the “The Year the Sun Died,” we get a very short acoustic intro/verse and into some heavy riffing during the pre- and chorus.  This song has an excellent feel to it and effective use of dynamics — the seamless sinusoidal back and forth between melodic and thrashy is well done and the overall song, from structure to composition to execution is spot on.  My only complaint with the song is the fade out — specifically, the timing…I wanted it to be longer than 5 and a half minutes, selfishly.

So, here’s the bottom line for me — this is an exquisite example of a band “growing up.”  It’s not 1989 Sanctuary, it’s 2014 Sanctuary, and it really works for me.  It’s not “The Nevermore Replacement Project” or “Warrel’s New Solo Project, Part II,” it’s Sanctuary, and from the opening notes of “Arise and Purify” to the tailing fadeout of “The Year the Sun Died,” this album is solid, well-paced, well played and well executed.

Because I hate putting numbers to things, but it seems the social norm to do so, I will give this 9.5/10, for me.
The big knock, really, is that I wanted more which is sort of backwards, since one should be praised for leaving audiences wanting more, but since I’m the one who wants more and I know I’m not going to get it for a little while, it’s my point, and I’m taking one for making me wait…ok, fine…just a half-point.
I know the fellas will understand.

Here’s the problem — I’m one of the minority: the left-handed guitarist.  I’m also not rich, not famous and not the best guitarist out there.  However, I do have money occasionally, and I sometimes get to feed the beast that is G.A.S. (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome).  My biggest problem is the in-store selection. 

When I go in, I have pretty good ideas about what I want.  My choices, at least in my area (Dayton/Cinci Ohio), are exceedingly limited — an Ibanez Gi0 and Fender Tele.  I will say that for my last birthday, I hit all the local shops and threw down less my wife thought I would to get a Schecter Omen-6 Extreme Diamond Series rather than some of the lefties we had found at other stores.  The point being, I did NOT spend the money at Guitar Center, even though that was the second stop on the trip.  I’ve bought there before, but not this time.  Part of that was I already HAVE one of the two models available in-store and wouldn’t buy it again without serious persuasion – like someone would have to pay ME.

I guess that comes to my next point — the in-store selection being dreadful is kind of be expected: we lefties are quite the minority.  That said, would it kill you to have more than 2 models in store?!  Even back in 1992 when I was looking for (and ultimately purchased) a new guitar at a LOCAL (to Norfolk, VA) shop, I had a choice from, basically, one lefty model per manufacturer, meaning I tested a lefty Fender Strat, Les Paul Custom, BC Rich Warlock, Jackson Stealth and PRS of some expensive persuasion, among probably 5 others.  I walked out of there with the Stealth EX, but the point is that I had a choice.  I, and other lefties out there, don’t get that opportunity, in-store.  Even *one* other model would be nice, but since you don’t know which type of player you’re going to get in there, predicting that a Schecter model or Jackson or Gretsch will the one someone’s looking for, I know that makes it hard.

Just for the record, the quality on the Ibanez Gi0 is dreadfully cheap.  The bridge is the stuff of nightmares and the hardware is…suspect and cheap.  Just so you know.  I bought one when I had my other guitar torn apart replacing pickups but still needed to record.  Not a mistake I would make again.  If you’re really looking at a cheap (in price and not necessarily quality) guitar to feature, ESP has a number of inexpensive choices, as does Dean, Schecter and Epiphone.  This is something you already know, since they’re available online.  I know there’s the notion of inventory and keeping them on hand, taking up the space that one of the other righty guitars could use.  But here’s the thing — when I walked in and saw my choices, I turned around, left and took my money elsewhere.  I’m not buying a guitar unplayed and if there’s no selection in-store, then I’m going somewhere that will have one.

At any rate, this was brought on by the email sent out highlighting lefty models and got me thinking about how it’s well fine and good to have them online, but, again, I’m not buying without playing an instrument (buying a second instrument of the same make and model notwithstanding) and when I walk into a store and get the "poor guy" sympathetic apologies from the sales staff because there are only two guitars of limited appeal available in store, it just feels a little disingenuous. If I, in the future, should find myself able to walk in with two grand to spend on a lefty and my choices are a $229 Ibanez drekster and a $400 Fender/Squire Tele, I’m taking my $2K elsewhere, just like I did with my $500.

Thank you for your time.

Testament and Greg

July 11, 2014

Greg Christian has been “airing dirty laundry,” of late about how financially inequitable the situation was while he was in Testament and how that led to his decision to quit the band.  It got me thinking.

I *LIKE* Greg.  He’s a neat guy, has helped pen some of my favorite songs, and it does sound like he not only got railroaded, a bit, but screwed, overall.  That said, when I see things like "it may be time to see what my attorney thinks," I twitch, because that should have been done *first.*  You bring in the attorney to look over your ***contract***, that legally binding document that will stipulate royalties, per-show pay or salary, in this case (was this to mitigate uncertainty, going with a "guarantee" pay rather than "per-show?"), and if the contract isn’t up to snuff — *don’t sign it* and negotiate until you get one that’s to your liking.  Otherwise, legally, you’re, as it’s been coined — over a barrel.  Now, going back over unpaid royalties might be an option, but, again, if there was no breach of contract because there was no contract, it will be an uphill battle and, usually, doesn’t end in the person getting royalties, just a loss of friendship(s) and a lot of bitterness.

I guess my other problem that is raised, here, is this — he talks about getting a paltry amount per show.  He’s got a W-2.  This says, to me, a few things, including "employment at will" and "agreed upon wage."  Basically, if they had played *2* shows, that would be have fabulous, right? $19K or so per show.  Instead, having a set salary of $38K and touring the world, doing a billion shows, yeah, it’s going to break down to "not very much" per show.  That’s the problem with salary — it’s averaged across the year’s worth of dates and not, as has been mentioned, a four week stretch of *4* shows, which, yeah, makes it REALLY hard to live on $1.25/show ( exaggeration… ). 

I guess my take on this revolves around what a bizarre beast the music business is.
When one talks about things like Chuck and Eric "throwing down $3K" for first class tickets and having more money per show and this and that and the other thing, it comes down to several factors that aren’t addressed, not the least of which are what kinds of contracts Chuck and Eric negotiated, to begin with.

1) During Greg’s absence from the band, how many albums were released (2 new, "Demonic" and "The Gathering" along with "First Strike" where Greg gets "composer" credits), tours toured (boatloads) and income banked that put Eric and Chuck in the situations they’re now in? I mean, an 8- or so year gap in Testament-based income is nothing to sneeze at, and certainly factors in, especially when combined with

2) New revenue streams — with Chuck, Eric, Alex and Gene having other income to subsidize Testament’s overall income, it would certainly make it easier to spend more money than someone who doesn’t have these revenues, not to mention

3) Royalties…If Greg doesn’t have a contract in place stating, *explicitly*, what his cut of each *song,* let alone albums are, that’s a big no-no.  It all comes down to what you’ve signed as to what you get in this department — nothing is guaranteed; nothing.  If these weren’t done when Legacy became Testament and he became part of that monster, then it *really* needed to be done when he re-joined, since I’m not sure what legal weirdness happens when you quit a band and what carries over beyond hopefully pre-negotiated and contracted royalties.  If he’s saying he’s not getting royalties, I’m wagering no contract was signed stipulating this.  If there was, then, yeah, it’s time to bring in a lawyer. 

4) We don’t know what the other members got paid.  It *could* have been the same, though I really doubt this, but, again, with more in the bank, it’s a lot easier to make do with $500/show than someone relying on the $500/show to feed, house and transport him to the next show…

There’s also
5) How much does it cost to ship gear?  Yeah, I know $100K sounds like a lot for a show.  And, really, compared to local bands jumping over the moon for $100/show at a bar, it is.  Now, I know when I fly, I have to pay $50+ for each additional piece of luggage and I have to check my guitar…singular…in a flight case…$50, and praying nothing impales it.  I can’t imagine what flying a stage full of gear would cost, even at a "economy shipping rate."  I guess I could look it up, but between that, whatever is on the rider, new strings, sticks, cords, etc., per show…somehow I think it could add up quicker than one would care to think, considering also insuring all of the gear, maybe on a per-flight basis, in addition to whatever a 3-month-tour-worth-of-clothes suitcase armada looks like (they’re guys…1? ;) ) and what extra baggage costs those are (though, the band members have to pay for this, it sounds like…).  You also have to pay your

6) Your management, your promoters and your crew — sound guys, roadies, strange hangers-on that you think might be part of the entourage, but can’t quite remember, but they look "metal" — "Wanna go to Tokyo?"  Then there’s gas for the buses or whatever transports your gear from the airport to the venue.  It all has to come from somewhere, and odds are good, you’re paying for this from the revenues from the previous night’s gig.

I could be wrong, but it really sounds like it comes down to not walking in with a lawyer at the get-go to negotiate a proper, satisfactory contract.

So, I listen to a lot of different styles of music.  It’s not a contest and I’m not trying to win the “Oh, yeah, we’ll I’m more diverse than YOU are” contest, because it’s pretty much a “who cares wins” argument.  Most of the time, no one cares.  My point, however, is that I have a different perspective on music than the person sitting next to me, just as that person has a different perspective from the person sitting next to them.  What it brings to the fore is the point: subjectivity.

In this vein, I figure an example is required.  Three weekends ago, I saw Conquering Dystopia in concert.  Last weekend, I saw Hotel California play live.  They were both excellent shows, though for me, for different reasons.  The Conquering Dystopia show, pits and all, was about seeing the absolutely amazing tandem of four of the top musicians in the heavy metal genre in what can be described as an all-out shred fest.  The Hotel California show, for me, was about spending time with my wife, seeing a band that falls within the Venn diagram of music we both enjoy.  Now, for me, being with my wife was more important, but that didn’t take away from enjoyment of the music and it was a good show – high energy when it needed to be and also, when appropriate, suitably subdued and contemplative.  It was also a simpler show, which led to the following observation:

“I think Conquering Dystopia played more notes in their first song or so than this whole show.” 

Well, that was dumb of me.  Because while it felt like a “hmmm…interesting” moment, to me, it could be – and was – perceived as a bit of music snobbery, implying that because the music wasn’t as complex or up to the quite lofty standards of Conquering Dystopia, that it wasn’t good.  It’s not how I meant it, but I will readily admit that’s how it comes across.  This is where the subjectivity and, further, expectations come in.

I don’t care, really, that Hotel California didn’t put on a show rife with riffs jamming hundreds of notes per minute, per instrument, into my brain.  That is not their style and I wouldn’t expect it.  I’m not going to defend my statement any further, as it was a pretty boneheaded and insensitive thing to say.  Specifically, it made it sounds like there was judgment as to which was a better experience and, to get back to my original thought, it means different things to different people.  To me, Hotel California did exactly what I expected them to do – put on an excellent show that made a lot of people, including me, happy.  Part of my happiness came from the music, but part of it also came from my watching my wife enjoying and being touched by the music. 

Honestly, the first half of the HC set, I was kind of lost, as I’m not a huge Eagles fan, though I do enjoy the music of theirs with which I am familiar.  That said, I got to watch my wife enjoy it and was introduced to music I wasn’t familiar with and, ultimately, got to take in musicians having fun playing music they love.  That’s pretty much what it’s all about for me.

I mentioned the Venn diagram and mentioned music that my wife and I both enjoy.  It’s not as inclusive as you would think as I listen to a lot of things she does not.  Interestingly, though, when we got married, we duplicated two CDs – neither of which you would expect from someone who listens to Conquering Dystopia – Jewel’s “Pieces of You” and Sarah McLachlan’s “Solace” albums.  Here’s the point to that – I would never in a million years take my wife to a metal show…she doesn’t enjoy the music, I’m not taking her anywhere near a pit, and it just wouldn’t be a fun experience for her.  By that same token, I enjoy going to see bands I wouldn’t seek out if it weren’t for her.  I also don’t go in with the same expectation as I do with a metal show.  If I’m going to see Arch Enemy, it’s not because I’m there to feel the white space between notes wrap around me in a soundscape woven from sounds and memories I’ve associated with the music since I was 10. It’s because I want my face melted off by shredding guitars, bludgeoning double-bass drums and volume set to “bleed” in an all out set of aggression and technical sonic devastation.  When I see a band such as Hotel California, my expectations are quite reversed. 

It’s also hard to extract the metalhead for those times when I am not in a “metal” environment.  When heads were bobbing at the Hotel California show during songs like “Hotel California” or “Dirty Laundry,” I thought, “hmm…it’s not even heavy…” After about a second or two, I tacked on, “…but there IS emotional connection and subsequent outlet of this emotion.”  What people get out of music is as individual and unique as the music out there.  Far be it from me, however, to judge any one else’s appreciation or enjoyment of music and, especially, inadvertently minimize that enjoyment by the implications of the statement that I will now, attempt to rephrase in a way that isn’t boneheaded:

“These guys rock and it was a much different experience from the last show, and that’s cool.”

For the record, I recommend seeing both of these bands live, if you have a chance.  They both put on excellent – though very different – shows.  You won’t be disappointed in either case and you might just gain an appreciation for what goes into each performance, as I did.

Animals as Leaders

With Conquering Dystopia and Chon

With special guests Shores of Elysium and Novallo

May 24th, 2014 at Skully’s in Columbus, Ohio…

As sometimes happens, there are concerts that just demand you attend. This was one of those. In the interest of full disclosure, I went with the sole purpose of seeing Conquering Dystopia. The last time I saw Jeff Loomis play live was in 2006 with Nevermore on the “This Godless Endeavor” tour. So, with that in mind, I had heard of two bands and listened to one. Apologies to the other bands, including Animals as Leaders, as, again, I was purely interested in Conquering Dystopia. That said, this was an evening of discovery an enjoyment of excellent music.

The first act of the evening was Novallo. They were good, musically and vocally, and at times reminded me a lot of a more progressive Stabbing Westward. I enjoyed their set and they had a good presence. I will need to check out their music – available on bandcamp.com. novallo.bandcamp.com, to be precise. It didn’t seem as though everyone was sold, though – I had to chuckle – I saw, in passing, a text message on someone’s phone that read “so much screaming.” To be fair, it was all on-key, which, trust me, can only be considered a good thing! Check them out on facebook, as well.

The next set of the evening was inflicted at the hands of Shores of Elysium and, believe me, only in the metal community can the adjective “inflict” be considered a positive, and it was. From the opening notes to the closing, it was a relentless infliction of choreographed mayhem and wonton obliteration of eardrum and spinal column alike – and I tend to think they wouldn’t have it any other way. To be honest, I had never heard of this local-ish (Delaware, Ohio) band and, equally honestly, that’s a shame for the local area. I wouldn’t mind seeing them again, though I might keep my aging, not-as-up-for-a-good-violent-pit-as-I-used-to-be, self along the periphery to enjoy the excellent musicianship that went along with brutal vocals. I had to laugh (as opposed to just a chuckle) when the vocals started, because I just thought, “you thought the LAST band screamed? Just wait…” The presence was good and those were some dreads on the bassist – and he had chops, to boot. The band was tight and I give them big props on winning me over not only with personality but with their music. You can find their stuff on iTunes or shoresofelysium.bigcartel.com not to mention their facebook page.

Slight tangent – I’m too freaking old for pits, these, days, it would seem. That said, when did just being a wrecking ball and getting up a head of steam and plowing into unsuspecting patrons attempting to enjoy a show become acceptable? Maybe I’m just a stodgy curmudgeon, here, but dare I say I miss the circle pits?

A band that did not conjure pits was Chon, and that’s completely fine with me. I had heard of them, which was good, but I had no idea what their sound was like or really what to expect. I was completely disarmed with how down to earth and just, honestly good this band is. Both guitarists are technically excellent and without much by way of effects or “brutal riffery,” held the previously unruly audience in thrall with technical runs and solid musicianship backed by equally talented bandmates. I really enjoyed their state presence which, as I think I mentioned, was just disarmingly down to earth. The drums were right up front on the very intimate (read: cramped) stage, to a point where I could pick out the drum sound without amplification. All in all, this band is amazingly talented and very much well worth checking out. Just remember, they’re not your straight-up thrashing instrumental band – they remind me a lot of what would happen if Eric Johnson’s and Blues Saraceno’s music had a proggy lovechild. The cheeky nod to the Power Rangers was endearing, as well. I really, really enjoyed the set – such a pleasant surprise. You can check them out on facebook, iTunes or chon.merchnow.com. They are well worth looking into.

Since I mentioned the size of the stage, may I just say that this is probably the most intimate setting I’ve been in since the Little Giant Room back at Wabash. By “intimate,” I mean “reach out a touch someone” close to the musicians and the artists themselves having roughly 12 feet to work with from back wall to crazed fan. It also sports a diner in the front of the place that has excellent food that, if a little on the pricey side, delivers satisfaction. I can personally recommend the buffalo chicken philly. It works. Really. It was also cool to see just about every band member from each of the bands wander out into the diner for one reason or another. Anyway, small tangent about small stage-space aside, it’s time to get to the reason I was there.

Conquering Dystopia, for those unfamiliar is like the supergroup you’ve never heard of. While there are “supergroups” with Navarro or Slash or some of these other high-profile musicians, you’d be hard pressed to put together a better groups of “super” musicians than the collection of Jeff, Keith, Alex and Alex. Jeff Loomis’ pedigree is legendary, coming from prog-thrash-death-gasm Nevermore and having released a couple of solid solo albums. Keith Merrow has released three of his own albums and collaborated with Jeff on a number of product demo videos in addition to tons of his own. He is also a very tall individual. I just need to get that out there. Alex Webster is the bass force majeure hailing from Cannibal Corpse. If you can hang with a guy named “Corpsegrinder,” you are a worthy addition to this group. On the skins, you have Alex Rudinger from “The Faceless.” His winning personality and ability to turn your innards to jelly with his double-bass round out this group. With all this adulation, could they possibly live up to any expectations set before them?

Conquering Dystopia completely blew away my expectations and they were lofty expectations, indeed. They played the songs I wanted to hear in addition to three others. It seemed like a short-ish set, but considering they played ½ of the album, including the longer piece “Destroyer of Dreams,” that’s still a lot of music. The set consisted of “Prelude to Obliteration,” “Tethys,” “Ashes of Lesser Men,” “Inexhaustible Savagery,” “Kufra at Dusk,” and “Destroyer of Dreams.” I may have forgotten something or gotten something wrong. It happens. What also happened was an interesting phenomenon. The pit…it was the most interesting thing, other than the band, to observe. There was the same body flailing, but it would give way, midway through the songs, as they would suddenly remember they were in the presence of such awesome musicians that, perhaps, it would be well worth watching these guys jam, in their prime and with technical brilliance and sonic savagery (some might say, “inexhaustible…”). Watching each of these musicians, at the various points during the show, one just couldn’t help but be in awe.

Rudinger’s skill on the drums was masterful. Keith was just tall and making the impossible rhythms he and Jeff cooked up look effortless – something to see. Did I mention he makes it all look very easy? For the record, I have seen a lot of metal shows and I have never seen anyone tear it up on the bass with the skill and just…bombastic riffery that I witnessed with Alex Webster. This includes a lot of talented bassists, but after what I watched during “Ashes of Lesser Men,” they all take a bit of a back seat. Sorry, fellas… Then, there’s Jeff. Jeff Loomis’ stage presence is a different kind of presence. He just walks up the edge of the stage and is awesome, just by what he does with the guitar. There’s no need for an “ego ramp,” or weird poses or anything other than just playing the shredding leads he’s written with precision and an effortlessness that makes the guitarist in me cringe a little. It’s awesome to behold. I recommend it to any and everyone. You may not be a fan of metal music, but to see a musician and a master of the craft performing some of the most complicated, intricate and brutally heavy pieces of music in a way that is still amazing and beautiful….it’s still something to experience, and an experience I would recommend every time. This band is the real deal and one of the most talented groups I think you’ll find out there. It was a pleasure to see and I hope that they swing back through this way on another leg of the tour.

Animals as Leaders is an impressive three piece ensemble, to be sure. Even as insanely bright as the backdrop was, it couldn’t outshine the musicianship. I have never been a fan of the 8-string guitars, mainly from a “gear-geek” and “tone snob” standpoint, but I must say I was duly impressed with Tosin Abasi’s tone, live. I’d seen some videos on the web and as such videos tend to be, didn’t do nearly the justice to the tone that they should.  This was remedied live. Both Tosin and Javier Reyes are exemplary musicians in full control of their instruments to prove without a doubt they are masters at their craft. I’m not sure what else there is to say – each song was performed with precision, enthusiasm and command. Tosin is a reserved showman and his quiet reserve belies his skill and talent with his guitar. I really enjoyed the show and recommend checking them out, should the opportunity.

Actually, that’s the bottom line – there wasn’t a band on this show card that wasn’t an excellent band, performing well and winning over, if not the crowd, me. I enjoyed myself, immensely, and would attend another show on this tour without hesitation. All the bands showed up and gave it their all, and that’s not something that’s always a given in this over-“pop”’d, lip-syncing world of drek that passes for music, these days. Every last band showed the audience that they respected and appreciated their outlay of cash to see them on this night and performed like it. In sports terms, they all “left it all on the field.” That’s all you can ask for. Well, it doesn’t hurt that they were all very talented and produced good music. So, again, if you have the opportunity to see the Animals as Leaders/Conquering Dystopia/CHON lineup – do it!

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